“In ten years’ time I’ll be somewhere on a farm, raising cows, maybe some hogs, just down home Roy.”
– Roy Jones Jr speaking to Steve Bunce in 2008
“Ok, someday—we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and live off the fatta the land.”
– George – Of Mice and Men
History is cyclical, so they say. Screenwriters and novelists will tell you there are only seven types of story it is possible to tell. Perhaps that’s why the steady tragedy of Roy Jones is starting to look so familiar.
The enduring classic, Of Mice and Men, written by John Steinbeck in 1937 told of a couple of itinerant farm labourers looking for work during The Great Depression. Controlled and manipulated by forces beyond their understanding, they eek out a living hand-to-mouth, travelling from one dustbowl plantation to another. Morale is kept up by fantasy, by repeating a mantra that one day they would save enough to escape their torments, buy their own farm and live as free men.
But things don’t often work out like that. Steinbeck knew it. Contract farm-hands, fighters, all of us, we are trapped by self-image. Roy Jones Junior, even the 47 year old, thick-around-the-waist version, is a boxer. He can’t be anything else and he doesn’t want to be.
There are those reading this too young to remember how Roy won his first World Title in May 1993 by outpointing Bernard Hopkins one handed. At that time, 24 years old and boxing as a middleweight, he possessed the kind of spontaneous, malevolent creativity that enters the ring only once each generation. He was a genius.
Over the course of the next ten years he would dance crazy circles around opponents, make faces, shuffle, shimmy and showboat, score knockouts from all angles with both hands and generally scale god-like peaks of performance. There are few fighters who look genuinely untouchable in their era, but he was truly one, ultimately being named ‘Fighter of the Decade’ for the 90s by the Boxing Writers Association of America. Combining supreme offensive skill with a hands-by-the-waist, reflex-based defence, befuddled opponents rarely touched him.
A disputed DQ loss to Montell Griffin blotted his record in March ’97, which he avenged savagely five months later. That aberration aside, he remained unbeaten until 2003 and picked up World Championships at Middle, Super-Middle, Light-Heavy and even Heavyweight. It was a career supreme. Yet Jones, we soon discovered, was human too. Like all of them he would live out the four seasons of success and his winter set in abruptly. As Roy dropped back down from beating John Ruiz at Heavyweight, to Antonio Tarver at Light-Heavy, shedding 18 pounds of fighting weight in six months, his sharp decline began. He began taking shots he once had slipped.
Like a top striker who loses a yard of pace and can no longer find the net regularly, Jones’ speed of hand, mind and foot eroded. Sure, there have been wins too in the time since then, including a run of eight straight against anonymous foes prior to Saturday, but even there he has laboured where once he would have soared. Since returning from his Heavyweight party 12 years ago, he has lost 8 of 25 including brutal knockouts at the hands of Tarver, Johnson, Green, Lebedev and now, Enzo Maccarinelli. For many long-time fans, the Lebedev loss, his third on the bounce from 2009-2011, was particularly difficult viewing.
A flat footed Jones stayed competitive for the majority of the fight, but in the tenth Lebedev hunted. Jones backed this way and that. When he was finally broken by a vicious hook / uppercut combo against the ropes, his legs stiffened and his head slumped forward, out on his feet. The referee paused, even Lebedev paused, there were cries of “stop it!” from the humanitarians among the bloodthirsty in the front rows, before the Russian landed one last right, almost with a shrug of resignation. Momentum sent Roy spinning down where for several sickening minutes, with his attendant family and friends in tears he lay, eyes closed, unmoving, as doctors attempted to revive him. They were horrible moments. But the 42 year old Roy survived. That’s what he does now. He survives. No longer able to make his opponents miss, he has gradually swapped the art of self-defence for the art of no defence.
Maccarinelli, who has also tasted crushing defeat more than once, showed impeccable dignity upon leaving Jones face-down in the fourth on Saturday. After the series of sharp rights and uppercuts that won the fight, not one glove was raised in celebration. He knelt instead in a neutral corner and crossed himself, presumably offering up a prayer that the decaying icon would get up. Heaven answered and Jones rose, glassy eyed, abashed. The two embraced and Enzo seemed genuinely moved. In one sense he had shared a ring with greatness, in another, he had shared it with boxing’s most familiar tragic tale.
Boxers don’t fade away, they just die slowly in front of your eyes.
Why is goodbye so often the hardest word for aged pros to say? It’s because like Steinbeck’s Lennie and George they realise who they are. While many young fighters claim to be treating the sport as a functional way to make a lot of money quickly – accumulate and leave, the old ones have long understood they are feeding an addiction. David Haye always said he would retire at 30, a promise he initially kept, then rescinded. As recently as two years ago James Degale was quoted as intending only to “win a world title, defend it a couple of times, then f**k off.” Perhaps the most obvious case is Floyd Mayweather, who with every ounce of his promotional effort professed to be all about the dollars.
Doubtless there are some over-the-hill fighters for whom a pay cheque is the main incentive. Heavyweight Danny Williams, for example, one time conqueror of Mike Tyson, now a fall guy for Eastern European prospects, has admitted to being embarrassed about his continuing career, but feels he has no choice. Yet that is not Roy’s or James Toney’s scenario and it wasn’t Muhammed Ali’s.
Boys are usually drawn into boxing through need. Some feel alienated in society, then find camaraderie in the gym. Some are mixed up in crime or drugs and crave discipline. Others have insecurities that only learning to fight can iron out.
Then they fall in love.
The jangling nerves of confrontation, surging adrenaline, the intoxicating feeling, when timing and strength, body and mind work perfectly together, when you sense you have hurt your man. It is primal and essential and there is nowhere else in legal life it can be found. When fighters reach the age of Jones, whether they need the money or not, even as their clocks tick and skills erode, they become stripped back down to the core, to the same essence as when they took up the sport as kids. They do it for love. They do it because once, years ago, when they first got some gloves and threw hands, they realised they had not chosen boxing, but boxing had chosen them.
This is the dilemma at the heart of the fight game. Like a honeypot for starving bees, it is both a saviour and a trap. What we love too much, destroys us.
Jones should have retired after Ruiz in 2003 and if he had, would perhaps be remembered as the greatest fighter ever. Each of the 5 heavy knockouts he has suffered since will have long term effects. We can be sure of that. Was Saturday’s the last of them? Will he be good to his word and set up that farm? Only he can know, but few will be surprised if he fights on.
Before the climax of Steinbeck’s book, Lennie sits to have a conversation with an old stable-hand called Crooks. He tells him of his dream, how he wants to change his path in life before it’s too late. Crooks has seen it all before.
“I see hundreds of men come by on the roads and on the ranches with that same damn thing in their heads.” Crooks says. “Hundreds of them and every damn one of ‘em’s got a little piece of land in his head. And never a God damn one of ‘em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Everybody wants a little piece of land. I read plenty of books out there. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody never gets no land. It’s just in their head.”
Please Roy, prove him wrong.
My last book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports book of the year award and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.